I enter a clearing, the darkness whirling like a midnight tornado in the center. “Leander!” I try again in vain.
“Shh now, changeling.” A form materializes from the darkness. A young woman, her skin crackled and black, as if she’s made of dark glass that someone shattered and reformed. Obsidian. Her movements are fluid, her black eyes focused on me as her feet barely touch the ground. Her hair and eyebrows are a shocking white, impossible against her black skin.
My stomach churns, and my bladder feels uncomfortably full and on the verge of release.
Her forked tongue darts out, and she smiles, her lips crackling against each other. “Delicious.” She sniffs the air hard, her sharp black teeth clacking as she exhales and comes nearer, so close I can feel her breath on my neck. “So tasty, fresh, and new.” When her tongue slithers across my cheek, I scream.
“I like the sound of your fear.” Her fingers dig into my sides, the tips like claws. “I will make a stew of you. Chew your marrow and pick my teeth with your bones. Taste like boar, you will. Rich and roasted and oh, how tasty you will be once you’ve rotted a while. Your bits under my nails, I’ll lick them out slowly, savoring.”
I scream again as she presses one claw to my face and draws blood.
Blood. My blood. This isn’t a dream. Ice trickles down my spine. This isn’t a dream.
Pulling back, she licks her finger. Her white eyebrows draw together, and her eyes flick back to my face. “Tasty, but … But not quite right.” She cocks her head to the side. “And what’s this?” She points to the necklace I still wear.
“I don’t know. Let me go.”
She eases closer, the scent of fire and sulphur leaching from her into the air. “By the Spires, it can’t be. But it is.” Her cackle shatters my mind, the notes harsh and unrelenting.
I press my hands to my ears but don’t dare close my eyes.
“Calm now, child. Calm.” She presses one cold finger under my chin and forces me to meet her bottomless gaze. “You were foretold.”
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Yes, you are.” She taps her finger to the side of her nose.
“If you let me go, I’ll leave this place and never return. I just want to get back home to—”
“You are home.” She reaches for my necklace but can’t seem to grasp it, as if there’s a barrier around it. “Home, home, home.” Her cackle breaks through again, and I think my ears might truly be bleeding. “Sit, young one.” The rope pulls me toward the murky tornado, which dissipates until only black flames in a cauldron remain. The unseen force makes me plop down on a log next to the fire as the witch peers into the iron pot.
“Are you going to kill me?” I speak past the knot in my throat.
She clicks her nails against her black teeth and gives me an appraising look. “Maybe.” Her predatory stare doesn’t ease.
I tell myself ‘maybe’ is better than ‘yes’ and continue, “Why are you following us?”
She spits into the cauldron, which sends a plume of black shooting high above us. “Compelled.” Gnashing her teeth, she focuses on the cauldron. “Compelled to find the king of the winter realm. Treated like a slave, summoned from my cave, away from my lovely pile of bones and rotting flesh, compelled.”
I push aside the visual of her crouching over putrefied remains. “By who? Who compelled you?”
“King beyond the mountain he calls himself.” She spits again. “Compelled. Like a dog. Like a slave. I am Obsidian. I do not break! Not for anyone. But this king beyond the mountain. His magic.” She shakes her head. “Pulled me from my cave, he did. Sent me to this horrid place. I must find the king of the winter realm.”
She holds her hands up, and her black claws elongate, the edges sharper than the finest razor. “To kill him. To take his handsome head to the king beyond the mountain. I can have the rest of him. I can keep all those other parts, let them rot until they are gloriously foul.” She smacks her hard lips. “He will taste even better then.”
“Can I convince you to let us go?” I try not to sniffle.
She turns her head sharply like an owl. No one’s head should be able to turn that far. “What can you give me?”
“I … What do you want?”
“Making a deal in the realms isn’t a good idea, young one. Promises here mean more, cost more, last longer. Forever.” She turns back to her cauldron.
Her words raise something in my memory, something I can’t quite see or recall.
“I asked you what you want.”
“Compelled, young one.” She pulls at her white hair. “Compelled. No bargaining. Nothing can stop the king beyond the mountain. I will kill the king of the winter realm. And then, young one, I may kill you, too. You were foretold, but I have no use for prophecy.” She waves a black hand. “Not in my cave, in the dark, with all my lovely, lovely bones. Yours would look lovely in there, too.”
A shudder wracks my body as I struggle to find something, anything to bargain with. “What do you mean I was foretold?”
“Doesn’t matter. Kill the king, kill the king,” she says in a sing-song. “Kill the—” Her head turns almost completely around as she stares at some spot in the woods behind me, and a vicious smile spreads across her face. “And here he is at my doorstep.” Her sharp teeth snap.
“Taylor!” Leander yells for me, concern vibrating through the notes.
“Leander, run!” I scream until that cold hand slaps over my mouth once more.
The witch disappears in a plume of black, and seconds later I hear Leander’s agonizing yell. It rakes down the sides of my soul, drawing blood from a place inside me I didn’t know existed. I have to get to him, to help him somehow.
But I’m trapped by the witch, my body unable to heed my commands to move, to run.
Another roar rips through the silent woods, and I know—somehow I know—that he is badly injured. Tears roll down my cheeks as I try to free myself, but all I can feel is the witch’s cold hands holding me still as she cackles in the dark.